Just hours after Albemarle County Public Schools’ new interpretation of its dress code went into effect on March 12, a Western Albemarle High student was sent to the principal’s office. He had refused to remove a hat bearing the Confederate insignia.
ACPS Superintendent Matt Haas had emailed parents the previous day to announce a ban on the “wearing of clothing associated with organizations that promote white supremacy, racial division, hatred, or violence,” making clear that included Confederate imagery and the Nazi swastika.
Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita stresses that the dress code itself has not changed. “It’s the same policy, which does not specify content and is viewpoint neutral,” he says. “But it does say that clothing that becomes disruptive to the learning environment is not permitted.”
While revising the dress code requires approval from the school board, Haas maintains he may interpret the policy within reasonable bounds. At the Albemarle County School Board’s February 14 meeting, he informally declared his intention to bar Confederate imagery on clothing, using the harm and disruption standard of the county’s current dress code.
Shortly before the meeting, the School Health Advisory Board issued a report concluding that the presence of Confederate imagery would likely impact the ability of students of color to learn and feel safe at school. Haas and school board members David Oberg and Katrina Callsen invoked the report when explaining their support for a ban.
Teachers and administrators have been instructed to respond to violations by notifying the principal, who will call students to the front office and inform them that their clothing is prohibited. Students may not return to class until they have removed or inverted their attire.
At Western Albemarle last week, the student’s father opted to check him out of school.
According to Giaramita, enforcement is not geared toward discipline. For this to work, “it needs to be an act of education or counseling,” he says. “But if a student refuses and continues to show up with the imagery on clothing, it becomes an act of defiance.”
Acts of defiance are punishable by suspension, enforced homeschool, or expulsion, though Giaramita says expulsion is unlikely. (The student is now back in school.)
The new interpretation exempts imagery that has an educational purpose, such as in textbooks and historical films. Notably, the drama department at Western performed The Sound of Music, complete with swastikas and students playing SS guards, that same week. “It’s a matter of context,” says Giaramita, adding that the drama director brought in a history teacher to talk to students about World War II, the German takeover of Austria, and the Nazi regime.
Free speech has figured prominently in the debate over Confederate imagery in schools. Several members of the school board have questioned the legality of a ban, citing an infamous case in 2002, in which Alan Newsom sued after he was forced to wear his NRA T-shirt inside out at Jack Jouett Middle School.
When asked about the new interpretation, his father, Fred Newsom, says he thought that issue had been settled with Alan’s lawsuit. “If only popular speech is protected, there’s really no right of free speech,” he says. “It comes down to if there’s a disruption. I can understand the motivation to try to avoid a disruption.”
ACPS legal counsel Ross Holden advised Haas that the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld bans of disruptive clothing if the dress code itself is content neutral, says Giaramita.
The Albemarle County School Board is scheduled to discuss hateful imagery on clothing at its April 11 meeting.